In Conversation

TOM BURCKHARDT with John Yau

Shortly before the opening of his exhibition, Louder Milk at Pierogi (April 8 – May 8, 2011), Tom Burckhardt invited ARTSEEN Editor John Yau to his studio to discuss his new work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

John Yau (Rail): Let’s begin with the not-so-obvious fact that all of the paintings are done on identical plastic supports, which you have made with a mold.

Tom Burckhardt: Yeah. The supports are cast plastic. It’s not something that I think is apparent at first, because it has the appearance of a canvas, but I think that at some point you notice that something is amiss about it, and I think that the thing that was important for me to do, the reason it was important for me to do that, is that it continues from this previous body of work I did called Slump, at Caren Golden (May 8–June 28, 2008). The way that work was billed was that I had handmade all these canvases that were slumping against the wall. They were made from a different process, but they had this kind of funky handmade almost-looked-like papier-mâché quality to them. You could see that from the sides, because they were leaning up against the wall, and you could see around the back of the canvas, and realize that the stretcher bars were all fabricated. They were combined with fabricated cans, boxes, crates, and stuff. Everything in the show was this consistent material and everything was painted with the same paint, including the face of the painting, so there is a question about whether they are sculptures or paintings, and where one begins and where one ends. There are drips on the cans that are the kind of unintentional drips that you would have on stuff lying around your studio, combined with things on the painting that were dripping, let’s say. There’s this slippage about what the difference is between the two. My thought for that work, which carries over to this work, is that I feel that when a painting is hung on the wall in a gallery with nothing on it, it has this assumption of quality, it’s already 50 percent on the way to being a work of art. Sometimes I find I am dissatisfied with looking at art where I feel like there’s only another small percent added to that scenario. You know there’s an atmosphere, a context of the whole thing, which builds it up to a point where the person, the maker, doesn’t have to participate very much farther. I want to find a way that’s work intensive and Calvinist about really putting something into it that matters to me; that is time, and process, and things like that. I like this idea of beating the premise down to the ground somehow, in a good natured way, where the very idea of painting is kind of squashed down flat somehow and I am almost endorsing this idea of painting being dead. That seems like a great starting point. Rather than taking that pronouncement as an insult, I think that it is terrific because then it all becomes available to me in a way, from the starting point of painting perhaps being so-called dead.

Rail: Francis Picabia began from a similar premise—painting was interesting and challenging to do precisely because it was dead.

Burckhardt: Right, and it’s crucial that my response, as an individual, to this situation is going to override any art world criticism phrase, “painting is dead.” That my participation in it, even if no one else feels that way, makes it alive, to me. I like this idea that by squashing something about the whole idea of painting down, maybe mocking it a bit, that instead of starting from 50 percent quality hung on the wall, you get it down to like 0 percent or .01 percent. And then you have all this room to move in, and it feels like it’s not quite determined where it goes from there anyway. It’s like I get to own that space from the ground up. I think that is still the case in this work, in that these fabricated, cast supports physically embody for me the whole idea of doubt in painting into the support; and it’s crucial for me to feel that all the time, that that doubt is in there from the beginning, rather than “doubted painting” being some sort of existential cloud hovering in front of the support. Something in the air, let’s say. I like the idea that it’s physicalized and embedded in the actual thing.

Rail: The whole support is cast from plastic. And the surface, it should be pointed out, isn’t smooth—it’s bumpy and uneven. You are not evoking the pristine, gessoed, linen surface that has been sanded umpteen times. At the same time, in your thoroughness, you put fat black dots around the painting’s edge as if they are thumbtacks holding inexpensive canvas to the wooden support, which might serve as the catalyst that propels the viewer to ask, what’s real and what’s not real? One of the thoughts I had about these paintings when I saw them for the first time in your studio some months ago has to do with that very question, but in a larger context—what’s real and not real is a deep part of our culture now, and it is embedded in every strata of our everyday life. You can use the word “organic,” and that means one thing, while “natural ingredients” means something altogether different. Everything we encounter is graded and gradated to some degree.

Burckhardt: I do like the idea, like I said, of embedding this doubt. I also think that in a way it makes them from the beginning, yeah, fake in a certain way. They’re kind of like a representational sculpture. And then from that fake, false beginning, maybe they’re a little bit like masks, somehow. It’s my job to wrestle them back into integrity with the painting. I was thinking that the early work squashed something down to the ground and then they grew up; and, to me, these come out laterally into a point of integrity. You know, I really love painting, but I also want to make fun of it. I want to have that full range of experience. I don’t want to be a true believer, and wear blinkers about it. I want to acknowledge its absurdity, that’s the thing. I think the key word is “absurdity,” and I always thought that “absurd” is a lovely, generous word about a relationship to something.

Rail: Your observation leads me to make two points, one is the connection to the poets of the New York School, where John Ashbery writes “Into the Dusk-Charged Air,” an encyclopedic poem that relentlessly describes one river after another. There’s something completely focused and dedicated about what he is doing and also something completely absurd and rather maddening. It’s both, rather than being one or the other. Ashbery’s not purely mocking something and he’s not purely idolizing it. I think there is that aspect to your work. The other thing has to do with what you paint on the plastic surface. The painting brings the whole notion of real and not real into focus in another way because of the “masks,” a word you used earlier. In each of these paintings there’s the persistent question: Is it a face or not, or how do you look at each painting, its blank face? While the work is really between quote, abstraction, and representation, there’s more to them than that. And there’s that word that you mentioned to me a few weeks ago— —

Burckhardt: Yeah, pareidolia.

Rail: Pareidolia. The Rorschach Inkblot test makes use of this phenomenon, which is where you see a face (or something) in a set of random images—Jesus in the taco, the man in the moon, or the sculptural face on Mars. That kind of directed looking, where we are looking for something, particularly in an art context, might cause us to reflect upon the motivations for our looking. Are we always looking for something or can we just look? What is it that we are looking for? What does the viewer want to see?

Burckhardt: I think just like what we were talking about earlier, when you said I wanted both rather than either/or, I do want to have it all, in terms of them being fake and real, and whether they’re paintings or sculptures. I feel like my territory is as an abstract painter, but at the same time, I also believe that a portrait by, say, Alice Neel is probably the ultimate painting. It’s the ultimate kind of painting somehow, as is a portrait by Christian Schad. I feel those are so unassailable in their magnificence, as a kind of painting. But I don’t think that I’m going to be that type of a painter, and I don’t think I’m going to be a portrait painter, but I want to approach that singularity of an image. The whole idea of pareidolia is that it’s an evolutionary thing that we had to develop to instantly recognize friend or foe, it’s a subcortical kind of image, it’s the primary kind of image processing that we have had as a species, and I want to tap into its hook, as in a pop song hook, and to make use of that. If I were a really good abstract painter, as soon as that face starts appearing, I’d want to turn the canvas and run in the other direction. I’m perversely trying to cultivate the thread that comes out of pareidolia, the creation of images, a facial image out of a random stimulus, basically, because random stimulus is the basis of abstract painting, right? [Laughter.]So to have that happen, but to have it happen a little slower than that evolutionary desire we have, which is instantaneous, I want them to appear slowly; the painting is supposed to be a slow read, and many people don’t see them and many people do, and it allows this variety of experience for people, and that is fundamental to them.

Rail: You want to slow looking down. I mean, the thing is, once we become aware that it’s a painting, but that the thumbtacks aren’t real, so to speak, everything gets slowed down, and you become, I think, more conscious of the way you’re looking, and what it means. Then there’s also this kind of intimate desire because once we see the thumbtacks, and see that they’re painted, part of us wants to reach out and touch one, you know. We want to discover how we have been fooled.

"Louder Milk" (2011). Oil paint on cast plastic, 12 3/8 × 14 3/8".

Burckhardt: Yeah, well, I think that as a painter, I’ve always been intimate with objects, in a sense, and that certainly continues in this, but I think that there are two parallel train tracks in this work, and they’re both about slowing down experience. The first is the support, and the moment when you recognize, like I said, that something is amiss about them, because, your first impression is that they’re paintings of a polite nature, and that they have a modernist sensibility that is a comfortable armchair kind of read of what painting is about, and I want you to feel that way at first, and then have the rug be pulled out very slowly. I think that this is also true about the type of image making in a way. I’d love it if someone gets halfway through the show, and really appreciates them as so-called regular abstract paintings, and then something slowly creeps in about these two issues, making the whole experience rest on unsteady ground, and that you would have to relook at everything.

Rail: So, on another level, even though they’re very distant from trompe l’oeil paintings, one could say that you have inverted John Haberle or John F. Peto.

Burckhardt: Right, because in a trompe l’oeil, your first impression is of reality, and then the illusion is revealed in a way, and I think that the opposite thing happens in these paintings.

Rail: Right, the initial illusion of what they are, followed by the question—what’s the reality? I mean it’s inverted. And then, it seems to me within the vocabulary that you have used in these works, the patterns, for example, the first superficial response would be the imagery we associate with the Pacific Northwest and the Indian Space painters. But the other thing that occurred to me: It’s really about pattern against pattern against pattern, I mean that’s another way, which brings in Japanese woodcuts. And then there’s the figure-ground relationship, what’s the ground and what’s the figure? The longer I think you look at them, the more you are apt to see through your own familiarities, and begin to see that something else is happening. I think there are lots of different kinds of vocabulary being brought together, that they’re not just juxtaposed.

Burckhardt: Yeah, I want them to be baked in together, definitely, yeah. Indian Space painters is something I see, Chicago Imagist stuff, Tom Nozkowski, in a weird way. One of the inspirations for me attempting this idea was Amy Sillman’s show at the Tang Museum, where she took these drawings she had done of people in intimate situations, where the psychology is rich, let’s say, and slowly through a game of telephone, did drawing after drawing, and ended up with paintings that really had very little representation of that situation, but contained, for her, if not for us, this continuing psychology of those relationships. I loved the show, and didn’t want to try and do what she did, but I thought maybe I could reverse engineer that for my purposes and make these kinds of paintings that started out in an abstract way, which is generally how I proceed, from abstraction to specificity of some sort; sometimes it’s abstract specificity, but sometimes it’s a representational specificity, and take them, and at some point in my mind, attach them to people I knew. Whether by asking a friend looking at them, hey which one do you like, which one is your favorite, and then it kind of becomes attached to them, and then that’s my way of steering it to specificity. I never really managed to have the ultimate reasons to do that, but in a way they’ve done that in an unintentional way.

Rail: So you think of them as portraits in a way?

Burckhardt: I think so, but it’s like they aren’t really people, they’re kind of portraits of the trope of faces that grow out of my intimate knowledge with the painting as it proceeds. It’s like they grow into individuals, as paintings, by growing into individuals as representations of faces, strangely. I wonder if their Achilles heel is that they don’t ever actually become people, that they aren’t portraits in that sense. I want to have this long, process relationship with making these paintings, so they go through many changes, they get turned around, and I get intimate with them, in that sense, and I’m not trying to shorten that distance in any way, and if a painting is too quick, I’m not too happy with it, I want to have a longer relationship with them. It’s like, at some point, they really start turning into a persona, I think that is what it is, maybe not a person, if that’s the right reading. And that’s really similar to the work I had in Slump, which was that I wanted to kind of make these paintings feel like a character and a persona, and take on human qualities, so that’s why they were kind of slumping and tired as opposed to that upright perfection that paintings tend to assume in a gallery situation. You know, I wanted them to be still attached to the studio so they’re living and breathing in a way.

Rail: And at the same time, you’re also interested in—you know, the notion of portraits, say for instance you just showed me these notebooks you did when you were traveling in Bali, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, that there is a side of you that sits down and does the portrait of the person, as a way to have a conversation with that person. There is more lateral extension to your work than I think most people know, that you did paintings based on direct observation, that you have often drawn what’s directly in front of you. And then there are the paintings that appear to be completely abstract. I don’t think you want to make a distinction. Rather, you just want to find your own way, from painting to painting, or from group of paintings to group of paintings, so that these pareidolia paintings on plastic are almost you dealing with the dilemma of: Is it abstract or representational? Why should we always distinguish or even use those terms as markers?

“Coy” (2010). Oil paint on cast plastic, 12 3/8 × 14 3/8 inches.

Burckhardt: Right. As a young painter, I would hear about the generation before me, and people not speaking to each other over issues like that, and it always seemed like the biggest hoot. Because two painters are so much closer to each other, one figurative and one abstract, than the person sitting next to you on a subway.

Rail: Right [laughs].

Burckhardt: Why a division? I never understood that, and I liked hearing those stories in a way, and I kind of want to exploit that history, you know. I mean I don’t think it’s anything groundbreaking to mix the two in any way, anymore. I think that for me, it is that I’m really interested in middle grounds of everything, and some of the ones I spoke about before, but also that I think these paintings to me, represent a certain thing about what age I am, and questions of being a painter and whether you look backwards and have this affinity for history, or whether you have this kind of avant-garde sensibility. I want to have both in a very peculiar way. I feel like both of those purist positions are not for me at all, which is that I don’t really believe in chasing the vanguard, because I feel like that’s a fucked up position.

Rail: Fucked up and academic now.

Burckhardt: And academic. But I also am very disturbed by a conservative element in painters who want to circle the wagons and be fuddy duddies about painting. I want to be both of those people a little bit, you know, and so I think that the paintings themselves have a certain quality of looking back, but then, and I feel that’s a good place to start from, a place of comfort and familiarity in a weird way, of getting into them as images and their process as paintings in a way, which I do believe in, but at the same time there’s this sense of warning about going down that rabbit hole, and shutting yourself off from other things.

Rail: I feel that. For instance, I don’t know if these particular paintings are going to be part of the upcoming show, but you’re willing to put telephone poles in one of them. What I like about your project is that you are willing to jump off the cliff and do something where my instant response is: Huh? I like the “huh” factor.

Burckhardt: I think that this show, like I was referring to earlier today, has at least two parallel sets of train tracks and they never actually meet. There’s a lot of irreconcilables about this whole thing for me, and I think that might be difficult for some people, because I feel that I don’t really ultimately reconcile those two streams of things—the idea of them having grown out of false supports, and my interest in turning them into faces or whatever. They don’t ever come together into a streamlined package, and I really like that a lot. I think that I like people who take positions like that, where, ultimately, it becomes something about character. I don’t know if quirk is the right word, but that there is something curious about the work, which makes you want to know a little more, and spend a little more time, as opposed to, okay, wrap it up, I get it. I think that those are just two of the things in there that don’t ultimately make sense, which is maybe another position I have about painting, which is that it is absurd.

Rail: Well, you did the installation of the unnamed artist’s studio where everything was made out of cardboard, or something that you would think of as disposable, and then they were all painted very meticulously, but not in some fussy way. I like that they were meticulously painted, and in that sense named, but they weren’t fussy. And then there were the good-natured references to art, like Johns’s brush-crammed Savarin can, and references to people you know, and their history. And yet, it was also an organized hodge-podge, in that it all fit together, but it didn’t fit together, because the sum of our parts may make us who we are, but when we sit down and think about it, the parts don’t really fit together or add up, you know.

Burckhardt: Well, I think that I’m interested in things that are middle ground, and that also represent divergent positions, and for me that piece was something that you would walk into and your reaction would be: Wow, there’s this intense amount of work in it, and an ethic, and that  is invigorating, and your blood pressure goes up, and you get excited by being in a place like that, someone has really thrown themselves into it. That’s kind of what I want out of art in some way, but that there was this divergent, opposite narrative, which was about someone who found a lack of reason to work anymore, and was at that point of maybe giving up, you know— —

Rail: Yes, there was the blank canvas that stood on an easel in the middle of the studio, like an accusation whispering: Okay, now what do I (or you) do?

Burckhardt: Right, exactly. And that this individual had all the support—the installation is positing that this artist had a space to work in, had this collection of stuff in history, had the support of history to be an artist, had all the tools, all that stuff one needed, and asked: What’s the problem here? But there’s an existential dilemma, a problem of motivation, and I like that that was in a way a mocking joke towards artists, that I do feel partial, which is to say, get on with it, and don’t think yourself into the hole of not being able to move forward, but I was feeling that way myself. You know, that I had had a kind of patch of not knowing how to move my own painting forward. Rather than get really morbid about it, I said, that’s the perfect way to move my work forward, which is to take that subject, before it blossomed into full-blown depression [laughter]. It was like, oh now I have my work cut out for me, based on this subject of not knowing what to do.

Rail: There are these recurrent things you explore and they kind of echo against, or come in and out of, your work. There’s the used cardboard and plastic—materially speaking, you could say that these are also sets of parallel train tracks.

Burckhardt: Cast plastic, cardboard, yeah— —

Rail: You have made an installation out of cardboard and painted on old book covers of books that are likely never to be read again, an engineering book from 1935, say. It seems to me that one thing that is almost never talked about with your work, and art in a larger sense—the elephant in the room—is class. And this is something you are conscious of in your choice of materials, as well as subject matter.

“Hades Grass,” 2011. Oil paint on cast plastic, 12.25 × 14.25 inches.

Burckhardt: Ah, yes, class. A great unspoken in art. Well, when I see a huge aluminum sculpture that’s fabricated with lots of economic power behind it from a little lump of clay, I often have problems with it in a class sense because I get preoccupied with the power involved, economic and art-political, in having that thing made that it becomes the image in my mind. I think I value the Calvinist work-by-hand attitude for some of the same class reasons because the power grows out of every individual’s immediate means. I sound like a raging Marxist on this! Isn’t that a Shaker idea, too? Painting’s class problem crops up especially when it takes itself so seriously, and has airs of elitism. I’d like to hear what the Philistines have to say, actually. I think that’s the voice I hear in my head when I wish to mock art, to put it in check, so the real value for me emerges.

Rail: It’s the whole range of what you can use, how you can get this and that into a work, which, in a way, you think of in terms of what to paint, or, as Ashbery writes about at the beginning of Three Poems, the desire to leave it all out, and the desire to put it all in. I think of you as the person who wants to put it all in.

Burckhardt: I mean these are a little bit like my desire. If I see an Allan McCollum casting, which I love, I want to keep working on it, you know. I mean I really appreciate his approach to those works and the position they define; they’re faultless for him in a lot of ways, but my desire is different. It’s, okay, now we can get started! I think that his work certainly is a precedent for what I’m interested in, in these things, what was his word for them— —

Rail: Surrogate Paintings. And I think one group of tall vase or urn-like sculptures is called Perfect Vehicles.

Burckhardt: Surrogates. I think that the supports that I’m using are taking that position. I think they’re also a bit like clones. They’re born out of the same DNA, because each one of these casts has the same kind of surface, and there’s even some incident on the surface that is repeated throughout them. Okay, that’s the nature part. The nurture part for me is to grow them as far apart from that similarity as possible, and take them through this ethic of working on them and this process, that’s the nurture part of it, is that then they grow into individuals, from this similar basis.

Rail: Well, speaking of Alan McCollum. Okay, on one hand you say you want to begin with this fake or identical form, and start working on them, but it seems to me that drawing is central to your work. You like to draw, you like to do something with your hands, you like to make something, you like to fiddle or do, or whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to put some high-minded word to it.

Burckhardt: Yeah, I want my hand in these, and that the fact that they’re cast, even though the original, the positive that I made the cast of, has a handmade quality to it, there is a sense of them being mass-produced. I like the sense that they have a conversation with modern life, because everything around us is mass-produced, that we deal with that in our life. At the same time, I still believe in artists making something unique out of their hands, in some way, and with some sort of particular touch to it. So it’s like I want to take it from the position of it being mass-produced and make it into something personal from there.

Rail: If the orthodoxy of postmodernism is, “look, no hands,” and the orthodox modernist position is “all with my own hands,” you’re saying we don’t have to do either A or B, that, in fact, we can do A and B.

Burckhardt: Absolutely.

Rail: It’s not the crossroads of either/or anymore, à la Kierkegaard, but it’s a place of more and also.

Burckhardt: That’s what I call middle position; you don’t want it to be what’s called “middle of the road,” but you want to be in the position to be able to take from anything. I don’t like purity, I like the hybridization of things. I want to have my cake and eat it too.

Rail: [Laughs.] The notion of hybrid I think is a serious position, I mean it starts for many of us with Johns making “Flag,” which is and isn’t a painting.

Burckhardt: Maybe this is actually where the tracks meet. It’s that they are both—the casting of the support posits them as sculptures and paintings at the same time, because it’s the form of a painting, a canvas, but it’s made in a process related to sculpture. It’s mass-produced and it’s handmade and touched, and then it’s abstract and figurative. It’s all those things coming together under the umbrella of a hybrid of some sort.

Rail: Earlier, you talked about being a certain age, but it also has to do with your history in some way.

Burckhardt: I think that my position has to do with the generation before me, that my Dad was a part of, which is this New York School thing, which, at least in my mind, seemed about willing these very large truths into existence on an 8-foot canvas. I have always had a reaction to that in terms of scale, certainly, and I’ve always been interested in multiple and fleeting truths, small T, as a fleeting position, and scaling it down to my own kind of place.

Rail: I don’t think of you as working large. Even your installations are made of small and manageable pieces. At the same time, even though they are on plastic, the recent paintings feel like someone has turned them over and over, that each one has been felt and touched. I feel like that’s a fact of all your work but you don’t fetishize it. There are ways it can all be fetishized. You don’t grind your own pigments, use black oil, or date all the times you worked on a piece. Even if we don’t see every move you made, we feel the accumulation of it.

Burckhardt: Yeah, it’s an intimate kind of relationship to objects, and I think that a lot of what we’re talking about is something that I’m wondering about in this work, because I’m not really making a big reveal about it. Many people may walk through the whole show without getting the elements of fake support and pareidolia behind the work, and yet it’s not a secret. I think that this whole idea, the way the support is made and that kind of false beginning, lets say, that they have, isn’t something that I necessarily need to reveal, it’s something that is crucial to me making these paintings. It’s something that I have to know all the time, but I’m refusing to have anything about them revealed in the title lets say, you know, because I don’t really want it to be a trick revealed at the beginning in way, and then it gets kind of fulfilled in that way. I want it to be something that is formative to how I have to respond to these as paintings, and it’s always embedded in there, the doubt-idea in this structure, it’s always in there as a corrective, a reminder, to this whole process I’m doing.

Rail: So you’re trying to keep it open as long as possible. Earlier, you were talking about the previous generation, which, as you know, had many who believed in the literalism of everything the individual saw or did. I think that the narrative that brought about the goal of painting, which is really the flipside of the death of painting, is that it gave everybody less and less options, and it just closed itself out to fulfill a conclusion. You’re saying, well, I can bring that forward in a different way, you can open this narrative up, and maybe it isn’t a narrative, at least not in any linear way.

Burckhardt: Sure, sure, and I think that whole endgame, of that thing and that intellectual academic position that gets taken, is hopefully why these things wouldn’t last a second in grad school. You know, the irreconcilables would cause a big problem for many people to talk about.

Rail: But there is something humorous and absurd about the irreconcilable nature of these works. The absurdity of them being faces—not faces (or masks) done on plastic, which doesn’t add up.

Burckhardt: That’s true, but art is the one place where everything doesn’t have to add up, unlike the real world where it is practicalities and economics and business, where the numbers have to come out in the wash. Art-making is one of the places where you can be left with more of a question than answer, so that’s a kind of attitude that I like, and then a kind of absurd hanging question is part of the appeal of what painting is for me. Humor tends to be an open attitude as opposed to a declarative one for me. You know, painting doesn’t matter much in the wider world, so there’s a whole lot of wrongness to play with and nobody gets hurt—it’s between me and the work.

Contributor

John Yau